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Q: What is this white-flowered plant that appeared in my garden bed and seemed to grow really tall overnight?

A: This is pokeweed, a very common native perennial that matures quite large and stout for a plant that dies completely back each winter. They can be a sensitive topic among gardeners who like to include or allow volunteer native plants in their landscaping since, while often considered weeds and capable of reseeding with abandon, they do have good wildlife value. According to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, at least 30 bird species eat pokeweed seeds.

All parts are poisonous for people to ingest, though with experience and abundant caution, very young leaves can be boiled repeatedly to leach-out toxins. If you want to remove pokeweed, rouge them out when still young — be advised that an established plant can have a very substantial taproot. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one growing for several years may need a pickaxe or digging bar to get it out of the ground, and even then, a missed root piece might resprout for one or more seasons thereafter.

Pokeweed certainly can be showy. The elongate white flower clusters (occasionally pale pink) support pollinators, and inky-black berries ripen by late summer or autumn. The main stems on mature pokeweed can become very thick by the end of the growing season and can flush a hot pink to nearly red.

Pokeweed in full early-autumn glory.

One caveat: it’s not uncommon for pokeweed to contract one or more forms of mosaic virus, including those that can infect some vegetable crops (like cucumbers). If you garden with a diverse range of plants, such as a variety of native perennials, you may reduce the risk of virus spread by having lots of beneficial insects in your landscape that can help suppress pests like leafhoppers that can transmit those diseases. If you find that a pokeweed volunteer you’ve kept develops mosaic symptoms, remove it promptly as there is no cure and you don’t want it to serve as a reservoir for virus to move into other garden plants.

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As a fun aside, it should come as little surprise to experienced gardeners that there are variegated and golden-leaved cultivars of pokeweed, demonstrating that any plant can be a weed or not as the gardener sees fit.

Q: Some of my coneflower petals disappear before the flower is fully open, or have chewing damage after it opens. What can I do to stop this?

A: You can’t intervene much if you want to let the plants support pollinators. Insecticide would not be recommended (and even organic options could harm bees) and a physical barrier like insect netting would of course prevent pollinator access overall.

A wide variety of insects in midsummer can chew petals (and foliage), which include many species of beetles, crickets, young grasshoppers or katydids, earwigs, and caterpillars. One of those caterpillars using coneflower (Echinacea) is called the camouflage looper. It’s entertaining to find because they attach pieces of their host plant to their backs, so they inch around decorated in whatever petal colors they are currently chewing. They’re like a cute little parade float.

None of these insects cause the plant much damage, despite the eyesore to us. In many cases, the true flowers in the core “cone” of the flower are still perfectly suitable to pollinators and, if they produce seeds, also to birds like goldfinches that love to eat them later. We grow these native species for the benefit of wildlife, so we have to expect that wildlife will actually make use of them in ways we might not appreciate.

There should be enough flowers unscathed by these petal attacks that you can still enjoy the plants, if not this season, then in a future year at least. This is one reason why planting a given species in masses or groupings of several individual plants can reduce the visual impact of some imperfections or damage that would be more prominent on a lone plant or two.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.

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